The Golden Bowl, by Henry James

XVII

It appeared thus that they might enjoy together extraordinary freedom, the two friends, from the moment they should understand their position aright. With the Prince himself, from an early stage, not unnaturally, Charlotte had made a great point of their so understanding it; she had found frequent occasion to describe to him this necessity, and, her resignation tempered, or her intelligence at least quickened, by irrepressible irony, she applied at different times different names to the propriety of their case. The wonderful thing was that her sense of propriety had been, from the first, especially alive about it. There were hours when she spoke of their taking refuge in what she called the commonest tact — as if this principle alone would suffice to light their way; there were others when it might have seemed, to listen to her, that their course would demand of them the most anxious study and the most independent, not to say original, interpretation of signs. She talked now as if it were indicated, at every turn, by finger-posts of almost ridiculous prominence; she talked again as if it lurked in devious ways and were to be tracked through bush and briar; and she even, on occasion, delivered herself in the sense that, as their situation was unprecedented, so their heaven was without stars. “‘Do’?” she once had echoed to him as the upshot of passages covertly, though briefly, occurring between them on her return from the visit to America that had immediately succeeded her marriage, determined for her by this event as promptly as an excursion of the like strange order had been prescribed in his own case. “Isn’t the immense, the really quite matchless beauty of our position that we have to ‘do’ nothing in life at all? — nothing except the usual, necessary, everyday thing which consists in one’s not being more of a fool than one can help. That’s all — but that’s as true for one time as for another. There has been plenty of ‘doing,’ and there will doubtless be plenty still; but it’s all theirs, every inch of it; it’s all a matter of what they’ve done TO us.” And she showed how the question had therefore been only of their taking everything as everything came, and all as quietly as might be. Nothing stranger surely had ever happened to a conscientious, a well-meaning, a perfectly passive pair: no more extraordinary decree had ever been launched against such victims than this of forcing them against their will into a relation of mutual close contact that they had done everything to avoid.

She was to remember not a little, meanwhile, the particular prolonged silent look with which the Prince had met her allusion to these primary efforts at escape. She was inwardly to dwell on the element of the unuttered that her tone had caused to play up into his irresistible eyes; and this because she considered with pride and joy that she had, on the spot, disposed of the doubt, the question, the challenge, or whatever else might have been, that such a look could convey. He had been sufficiently off his guard to show some little wonder as to their having plotted so very hard against their destiny, and she knew well enough, of course, what, in this connection, was at the bottom of his thought, and what would have sounded out more or less if he had not happily saved himself from words. All men were brutes enough to catch when they might at such chances for dissent — for all the good it really did them; but the Prince’s distinction was in being one of the few who could check himself before acting on the impulse. This, obviously, was what counted in a man as delicacy. If her friend had blurted or bungled he would have said, in his simplicity, “Did we do ‘everything to avoid’ it when we faced your remarkable marriage?”— quite handsomely of course using the plural, taking his share of the case, by way of a tribute of memory to the telegram she had received from him in Paris after Mr. Verver had despatched to Rome the news of their engagement. That telegram, that acceptance of the prospect proposed to them — an acceptance quite other than perfunctory — she had never destroyed; though reserved for no eyes but her own it was still carefully reserved. She kept it in a safe place — from which, very privately, she sometimes took it out to read it over. “A la guerre comme a la guerre then”— it had been couched in the French tongue. “We must lead our lives as we see them; but I am charmed with your courage and almost surprised at my own.” The message had remained ambiguous; she had read it in more lights than one; it might mean that even without her his career was up-hill work for him, a daily fighting-matter on behalf of a good appearance, and that thus, if they were to become neighbours again, the event would compel him to live still more under arms. It might mean on the other hand that he found he was happy enough, and that accordingly, so far as she might imagine herself a danger, she was to think of him as prepared in advance, as really seasoned and secure. On his arrival in Paris with his wife, none the less, she had asked for no explanation, just as he himself had not asked if the document were still in her possession. Such an inquiry, everything implied, was beneath him — just as it was beneath herself to mention to him, uninvited, that she had instantly offered, and in perfect honesty, to show the telegram to Mr. Verver, and that if this companion had but said the word she would immediately have put it before him. She had thereby forborne to call his attention to her consciousness that such an exposure would, in all probability, straightway have dished her marriage; that all her future had in fact, for the moment, hung by the single hair of Mr. Verver’s delicacy (as she supposed they must call it); and that her position, in the matter of responsibility, was therefore inattackably straight.

For the Prince himself, meanwhile, time, in its measured allowance, had originally much helped him — helped him in the sense of there not being enough of it to trip him up; in spite of which it was just this accessory element that seemed, at present, with wonders of patience, to lie in wait. Time had begotten at first, more than anything else, separations, delays and intervals; but it was troublesomely less of an aid from the moment it began so to abound that he had to meet the question of what to do with it. Less of it was required for the state of being married than he had, on the whole, expected; less, strangely, for the state of being married even as he was married. And there was a logic in the matter, he knew; a logic that but gave this truth a sort of solidity of evidence. Mr. Verver, decidedly, helped him with it — with his wedded condition; helped him really so much that it made all the difference. In the degree in which he rendered it the service on Mr. Verver’s part was remarkable — as indeed what service, from the first of their meeting, had not been? He was living, he had been living these four or five years, on Mr. Verver’s services: a truth scarcely less plain if he dealt with them, for appreciation, one by one, than if he poured them all together into the general pot of his gratitude and let the thing simmer to a nourishing broth. To the latter way with them he was undoubtedly most disposed; yet he would even thus, on occasion, pick out a piece to taste on its own merits. Wondrous at such hours could seem the savour of the particular “treat,” at his father-inlaw’s expense, that he more and more struck himself as enjoying. He had needed months and months to arrive at a full appreciation — he couldn’t originally have given offhand a name to his deepest obligation; but by the time the name had flowered in his mind he was practically living at the ease guaranteed him. Mr. Verver then, in a word, took care of his relation to Maggie, as he took care, and apparently always would, of everything else. He relieved him of all anxiety about his married life in the same manner in which he relieved him on the score of his bank-account. And as he performed the latter office by communicating with the bankers, so the former sprang as directly from his good understanding with his daughter. This understanding had, wonderfully — THAT was in high evidence — the same deep intimacy as the commercial, the financial association founded, far down, on a community of interest. And the correspondence, for the Prince, carried itself out in identities of character the vision of which, fortunately, rather tended to amuse than to — as might have happened — irritate him. Those people — and his free synthesis lumped together capitalists and bankers, retired men of business, illustrious collectors, American fathers-inlaw, American fathers, little American daughters, little American wives — those people were of the same large lucky group, as one might say; they were all, at least, of the same general species and had the same general instincts; they hung together, they passed each other the word, they spoke each other’s language, they did each other “turns.” In this last connection it of course came up for our young man at a given moment that Maggie’s relation with HIM was also, on the perceived basis, taken care of. Which was in fact the real upshot of the matter. It was a “funny” situation — that is it was funny just as it stood. Their married life was in question, but the solution was, not less strikingly, before them. It was all right for himself, because Mr. Verver worked it so for Maggie’s comfort; and it was all right for Maggie, because he worked it so for her husband’s.

The fact that time, however, was not, as we have said, wholly on the Prince’s side might have shown for particularly true one dark day on which, by an odd but not unprecedented chance, the reflections just noted offered themselves as his main recreation. They alone, it appeared, had been appointed to fill the hours for him, and even to fill the great square house in Portland Place, where the scale of one of the smaller saloons fitted them but loosely. He had looked into this room on the chance that he might find the Princess at tea; but though the fireside service of the repast was shiningly present the mistress of the table was not, and he had waited for her, if waiting it could be called, while he measured again and again the stretch of polished floor. He could have named to himself no pressing reason for seeing her at this moment, and her not coming in, as the half-hour elapsed, became in fact quite positively, however perversely, the circumstance that kept him on the spot. Just there, he might have been feeling, just there he could best take his note. This observation was certainly by itself meagre amusement for a dreary little crisis; but his walk to and fro, and in particular his repeated pause at one of the high front windows, gave each of the ebbing minutes, none the less, after a time, a little more of the quality of a quickened throb of the spirit. These throbs scarce expressed, however, the impatience of desire, any more than they stood for sharp disappointment: the series together resembled perhaps more than anything else those fine waves of clearness through which, for a watcher of the east, dawn at last trembles into rosy day. The illumination indeed was all for the mind, the prospect revealed by it a mere immensity of the world of thought; the material outlook was all the while a different matter. The March afternoon, judged at the window, had blundered back into autumn; it had been raining for hours, and the colour of the rain, the colour of the air, of the mud, of the opposite houses, of life altogether, in so grim a joke, so idiotic a masquerade, was an unutterable dirty brown. There was at first even, for the young man, no faint flush in the fact of the direction taken, while he happened to look out, by a slow-jogging four-wheeled cab which, awkwardly deflecting from the middle course, at the apparent instance of a person within, began to make for the left-hand pavement and so at last, under further instructions, floundered to a full stop before the Prince’s windows. The person within, alighting with an easier motion, proved to be a lady who left the vehicle to wait and, putting up no umbrella, quickly crossed the wet interval that separated her from the house. She but flitted and disappeared; yet the Prince, from his standpoint, had had time to recognise her, and the recognition kept him for some minutes motionless.

Charlotte Stant, at such an hour, in a shabby four-wheeler and a waterproof, Charlotte Stant turning up for him at the very climax of his special inner vision, was an apparition charged with a congruity at which he stared almost as if it had been a violence. The effect of her coming to see him, him only, had, while he stood waiting, a singular intensity — though after some minutes had passed the certainty of this began to drop. Perhaps she had NOT come, or had come only for Maggie; perhaps, on learning below that the Princess had not returned, she was merely leaving a message, writing a word on a card. He should see, at any rate; and meanwhile, controlling himself, would do nothing. This thought of not interfering took on a sudden force for him; she would doubtless hear he was at home, but he would let her visit to him be all of her own choosing. And his view of a reason for leaving her free was the more remarkable that, though taking no step, he yet intensely hoped. The harmony of her breaking into sight while the superficial conditions were so against her was a harmony with conditions that were far from superficial and that gave, for his imagination, an extraordinary value to her presence. The value deepened strangely, moreover, with the rigour of his own attitude — with the fact too that, listening hard, he neither heard the house-door close again nor saw her go back to her cab; and it had risen to a climax by the time he had become aware, with his quickened sense, that she had followed the butler up to the landing from which his room opened. If anything could further then have added to it, the renewed pause outside, as if she had said to the man “Wait a moment!” would have constituted this touch. Yet when the man had shown her in, had advanced to the tea-table to light the lamp under the kettle and had then busied himself, all deliberately, with the fire, she made it easy for her host to drop straight from any height of tension and to meet her, provisionally, on the question of Maggie. While the butler remained it was Maggie that she had come to see and Maggie that — in spite of this attendant’s high blankness on the subject of all possibilities on that lady’s part — she would cheerfully, by the fire, wait for. As soon as they were alone together, however, she mounted, as with the whizz and the red light of a rocket, from the form to the fact, saying straight out, as she stood and looked at him: “What else, my dear, what in the world else can we do?”

It was as if he then knew, on the spot, why he had been feeling, for hours, as he had felt — as if he in fact knew, within the minute, things he had not known even while she was panting, as from the effect of the staircase, at the door of the room. He knew at the same time, none the less, that she knew still more than he — in the sense, that is, of all the signs and portents that might count for them; and his vision of alternative — she could scarce say what to call them, solutions, satisfactions — opened out, altogether, with this tangible truth of her attitude by the chimney-place, the way she looked at him as through the gained advantage of it; her right hand resting on the marble and her left keeping her skirt from the fire while she held out a foot to dry. He couldn’t have told what particular links and gaps had at the end of a few minutes found themselves renewed and bridged; for he remembered no occasion, in Rome, from which the picture could have been so exactly copied. He remembered, that is, none of her coming to see him in the rain while a muddy four-wheeler waited, and while, though having left her waterproof downstairs, she was yet invested with the odd eloquence — the positive picturesqueness, yes, given all the rest of the matter — of a dull dress and a black Bowdlerised hat that seemed to make a point of insisting on their time of life and their moral intention, the hat’s and the frock’s own, as well as on the irony of indifference to them practically playing in her so handsome rain-freshened face. The sense of the past revived for him nevertheless as it had not yet done: it made that other time somehow meet the future close, interlocking with it, before his watching eyes, as in a long embrace of arms and lips, and so handling and hustling the present that this poor quantity scarce retained substance enough, scarce remained sufficiently THERE, to be wounded or shocked.

What had happened, in short, was that Charlotte and he had, by a single turn of the wrist of fate —“led up” to indeed, no doubt, by steps and stages that conscious computation had missed — been placed face to face in a freedom that partook, extraordinarily, of ideal perfection, since the magic web had spun itself without their toil, almost without their touch. Above all, on this occasion, once more, there sounded through their safety, as an undertone, the very voice he had listened to on the eve of his marriage with such another sort of unrest. Dimly, again and again, from that period on, he had seemed to hear it tell him why it kept recurring; but it phrased the large music now in a way that filled the room. The reason was — into which he had lived, quite intimately, by the end of a quarter-of-an-hour — that just this truth of their safety offered it now a kind of unexampled receptacle, letting it spread and spread, but at the same time elastically enclosing it, banking it in, for softness, as with billows of eiderdown. On that morning; in the Park there had been, however dissimulated, doubt and danger, whereas the tale this afternoon was taken up with a highly emphasised confidence. The emphasis, for their general comfort, was what Charlotte had come to apply; inasmuch as, though it was not what she definitely began with, it had soon irrepressibly shaped itself. It was the meaning of the question she had put to him as soon as they were alone — even though indeed, as from not quite understanding, he had not then directly replied; it was the meaning of everything else, down to the conscious quaintness of her ricketty “growler” and the conscious humility of her dress. It had helped him a little, the question of these eccentricities, to let her immediate appeal pass without an answer. He could ask her instead what had become of her carriage and why, above all, she was not using it in such weather.

“It’s just because of the weather,” she explained. “It’s my little idea. It makes me feel as I used to — when I could do as I liked.”

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Last updated Saturday, March 1, 2014 at 20:38